This article by historian Quinn Slobodian is fascinating. Slobodian tells the story of the Hewlett Foundation’s attempt to “reverse-engineer the neoliberal project and replace it with a new economic paradigm”. Slobodian refers to this memo by Larry Kramer that triggered a substantial donation by the Hewlett Foundation (all together, $60 million) to “remake the intellectual paradigm” to go “beyond neoliberalism”.

The project was taken, Slobodian argues, from the neoliberal playbook, in particular from F. A. Hayek‘s aim, which reverberated in the work of many classical liberal think tanks, to persuade “professional secondhand dealers in ideas” of the virtues of the market economy, from high school teachers to journalists. The Hewlett Foundation grant, Slobodian reports, has helped in developing a network of committed anti-neoliberals.

The story he tells is about the influence of a movement, and in particular of a certain number of scholars who happened to contribute to a symposium and to a special issue of the Democracy journal and who, in a matter of a couple of years, ended up in government:

One dealer in the ideas to oppose neoliberalism was this very journal. In spring 2019, a special issue of Democracy supported by the Hewlett Foundation, assembled some of the brightest lights in the academic and policy world feeling out the contours of a post-neoliberal project…. Among the contributors in 2019 were Heather Boushey, the president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She concentrated on the academic discipline of economics where she saw a hopeful shift from theory to empiricism in recent years. Another was law professor K. Sabeel Rahman, who laid out the need to reclaim the language of freedom from neoliberals as “emancipation from conditions of structural inequality and subordination.” Yet another was Felicia Wong, who dwelled on the need to build “post-neoliberal” institutions, imagining a “pro-public equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce.” . The director of Hewlett’s Beyond Neoliberalism initiative, Jennifer Harris, named some of those institutions in her programmatic piece. They included Demos (directed by Rahman), the Roosevelt Institute (directed by Wong), and the Open Markets institute (praised by Chris Hughes, another contributor to the special issue, in his call to “break up Facebook”). …

Less than two years from the publication of the special issue, the ambitious, if vague, ruminations of the special issue came down to earth as all of the authors named above took on roles in the incoming Biden Administration. Boushey was a member of the new Council of Economic Advisors. Rahman was Senior Counselor in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Wong was the U.S. representative on the G7 Economic Resilience Panel. And Harris became a member of both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. Lina Khan, a veteran of the Open Markets Institute and founding member of the Law and Political Economic Project at Yale, itself funded by a $600,000 Hewlett grant, was the director of the Federal Trade Commission.

This was an astonishing success, a seizure of some of the commanding heights of policymaking by a cohort defining their project self-consciously as transcending neoliberalism.

The second part of Slobodian’s article is devoted to the changes that this coterie of revolutionaries has already brought back and the areas in which they are running behind. It is an interesting, “in motion” history of an intellectual movement – and I have learned a lot from his piece.

I am more dubious that the Mont Pelerin Society can be an unwilling forerunner of this brilliant operation of political entrism. For one thing, whatever success classical liberals had in influencing public policy in the 1980s, it took more than 30 years from the foundation of the Mont Pelerin Society to run into friendly politicians. Also, it would be hard to argue that it was the leaders (intellectual or organizational) of the classical liberal movement who ended up in Parliament, in government, or in regulatory bodies. The major classical liberal theorists were, well, theorists: think Mises and Hayek but also Buchanan, Stigler, or Coase. Milton Friedman became a very popular figure because of his talents in popularizing free-market ideas – yet you can compare him with Paul Krugman, as they’re both highly influential public intellectuals, but not to anybody who actually took a government post. Founders and managers of free-market think tanks often had a brief experience in government before becoming think-tankers (I think of Chris De Muth). Sometimes they were recognized with honors by political leaders (Ralph Harris was raised to the peerage by Margaret Thatcher), but I cannot think of a major think tank leader who became a legislator or minister himself. If we can assume an intellectual in government carries her ideas with her, assessing the indirect influence of scholars and books is not that easy. We tend to think intellectual debates change policies, but how they do that is not crystal clear.

For its critics, it is hard to accept the Mont Pelerin Society was (and is) a genuine intellectual association. Of course, Hayek and the other founders wanted to “do something” for liberalism to thrive again. But in part they really wanted to be in contact with one another (far more difficult in 1947 than in 2017), to be able to share ideas and discuss them among friends who would not be outraged by their mere sympathy for the free market, and eventually, yes, to sharpen their ideas in order to win more minds and hearts back to the liberal cause. They wanted to sharpen their arguments and improve their ideas, more than conspire and lobby for appointments (in politics or the academe).

If you go by the “liberal playbook” Slobodian quotes, I am not sure you can consider Hayek’s endeavor so successful. MPS membership has grown over the years; we are about 700 now- not quite enough to rule the world. In the 1980s the Society had around 400 members, not quite enough to occupy the world’s universities. If you assess its influence on second-hand dealers in ideas, the overwhelming majority of journalists, not to mention high school teachers, were socialists even at the height of Reaganism and Thatcherism. True, thanks to MPS, free-market think tanks, and especially thanks to the better arguments for the free society developed through time, we went from “no free market journalists at all” to “some”. But still a minority. Also, the most effective ones (like Henry Hazlitt or, in England, Andrew Alexander) belong to a generation long gone.

I think Hayek somehow grew more critical of his own strategy and later in life (in Law Legislation and Liberty and The Fatal Conceit, for example) came to consider the innate instincts and the cognitive biases which make for everybody, including intellectuals, so hard to understand, let alone to embrace, the notion of bottom-up, “spontaneous” orders, including the market economy.

Critics of neoliberalism tend to read the Mont Pelerin Society as an attempt to establish cultural hegemony in society, somehow understanding Hayek through Gramscian lenses. Strategies to infiltrate institutions (academia, publishing houses, the judiciary) in order to sow the seeds of a change in the political order were used, for example, in Italy by the left, following Gramsci’s inspiration, with a certain success. The intellectual left is playing by its own playbook. By quoting Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society, it pays them a paradoxical tribute, perhaps to fashion its own efforts as a form of brave intellectual resistance rather than a (highly successful, to be sure) attempt to drive the mainstream further left, played by esteemed members of that very mainstream.